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Anciennes et nouvelles aristocraties

Didier Lancien
Monique de Saint-Martin

IV. L'aristocratie dans tous ses états

Winston Churchill and the Aristocracy

Roland Quinault

Texte intégral

1Historical interest in Winston Churchill–which shows no signs of abating–has focused on what he was, as well as on what he did. Was Churchill the “last lion” of a dying English social order, or a new classless trans-Atlantic man? His official biographer, Martin Gilbert, has avoided this issue, but others have proffered contrasting opinions. In 1962 Anthony Sampson wrote: “Churchill has never taken very kindly to the aristocracy from which he sprung and even in his old age he has preferred the company of selfmade men like Aristotle Onassis, Emery Reves and Lord Beaverbrook.” (Sampson 1962: 12.) More recently, however, David Cannadine has claimed that Churchill regarded himself as an aristocrat and behaved like one (Cannadine 1995). Yet Churchill was not a peer, nor even the son of one. His father, Lord Randolph Churchill, was the younger son of the seventh Duke of Marlborough, but he only had a courtesy title. Winston’s mother, Jennie Jerome, was the daughter of a wealthy American financier and thus was not, by birth, a member of the English upper classes.

2Winston Churchill did not receive a typical aristocratic education. Unlike his father who had been educated at Eton and Oxford, Winston went to Harrow and the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. Those colleges recruited mostly from the upper middle classes, rather than the aristocracy. Although Winston became an officer in the cavalry–the most aristocratic branch of the army–his regiment was less aristocratic than many others. As a cavalry subaltern, Churchill acquired a liking for hunting and polo–sports popular with some aristocrats–but he soon left the army to become a war correspondent and then a Member of Parliament.

3Churchill inherited his interest in politics from his father’s family. Both his father and his paternal grandfather had been Cabinet ministers and five generations of his immediate ancestors had sat in Parliament. But in his biography of his father (Churchill, W. 1996), Winston said nothing about Lord Randolph’s forebears and in his later life of the first Duke of Marlborough, he stressed individual achievement, rather than family lineage. Winston did point out, however, that Galton, the pioneer eugenist, had cited Marlborough and his nephew, the Duke of Berwick–the famous French marshall–as oustanding examples of inherited genius (Churchill, W. 1963, 2: 35).

4Marlborough’s victory over the French in the War of the Spanish Succession was commemorated by the construction of Blenheim Palace which became the enduring symbol of the Churchill family’s prestige. Blenheim Palace also had personal significance for Winston Churchill, for it was there that, in his own words, “I took two very important decisions: to be born and to marry.” But the location at Blenheim of Winston’s birth and engagement was somewhat fortuitous. If Winston had not been born two months prematurely, while his mother was attending a ball at Blenheim, he would have entered the world in the much more ordinary surroundings of his parents’ home in London. Winston’s proposal of marriage to Clementine Hozier at Blenheim, in 1908, was rather unpredictable. For Clementine was a Liberal who had met Winston at a Liberal salon in London and she was shy about accepting an invitation from the Tory Duke of Marlborough to visit Blenheim (Soames 1979: 40).

5David Cannadine has claimed that Churchill regarded Blenheim Palace as his second home (Cannadine 1990: 608). He cited the opinion of Churchill’s private secretary, John Colville, who claimed that for most of Churchill’s early manhood “Blenheim was his constant shelter and spiritual home.” (Colville 1981: 20). But Colville had no personal knowledge of Churchill before 1940 and his claim was false. In fact, Churchill hardly ever visited Blenheim during the first twenty-six years of his life and he did not even mention the palace in his autobiography, My Early Life (Churchill, W. 1943). It was not until the Edwardian period that Churchill became a fairly regular visitor to Blenheim. There he mixed not only with aristocrats like Lord Hugh Cecil and Lord Eustace Percy, but also with gifted commoners like F. E. Smith. The American Duchess of Marlborough appreciated Winston’s company because of his decidedly unaristocratic views: “I delighted in his companionship [...] his views on life were not drawn and quartered, as were Marlborough’s, by a sense of self-importance. To me he represented the democratic spirit so foreign to my environment, and which I deeply missed” (Balsan 1953: 103).

6Cannadine has also alleged that Churchill revered his cousin, the ninth Duke of Marlborough, “as the head of the family and as the bearer of the proudest name in the land” (Cannadine 1990: 608). Certainly Churchill regarded “Sunny” Marlborough as his greatest friend. Their friendship was encouraged by their closeness in age and by the fact that they both lost their fathers at a relatively early age. But in other respects, Winston was initially much less fortunate than his ducal cousin. Sunny Marlborough enjoyed the prestige of a famous dukedom, the wealth of an American heiress–Consuelo Vanderbilt–and rapid political and military promotion. He also helped his relatively impoverished cousin by helping to pay for Winston’s election expenses at Oldham in 1900.

  • 1 Rosebery to W. S. Churchill, 10 Nov. 1901 (Churchill, R. 1969, vol. 2 part 1: 96).

7Nevertheless Winston repaid Marlborough’s generosity by showing a marked lack of political deference. In 1901 he publicly attacked the Dukes of Marlborough and Northumberland for their “vain and discredited optimism” about the Government’s conduct of the South African war. (The Times, 24 Oct. 1901). Lord Rosebery told Winston that he had chaffed “the heads of your own and Percy’s families in most effective fashion.”1 In 1903 Winston and Sunny parted company politically over the issue of fiscal reform, but they remained close friends. In 1905, when Liberal Winston supplanted his Tory cousin as Under-Secretary at the Colonial Office, the Duke was pleased, rather than discomfited, by Winston’s success.

  • 2 W. S. Churchill to Lady R. Churchill, 4 Nov. 1896; 6 April, 1897 (Churchill, R. 1967, vol. 1 part (...)

8Lloyd George once observed that Winston Churchill had a soft spot for dukes because of “Blenheim and all that” (Churchill, R. 1969: 323). But Churchill’s soft spot for Blenheim and the Duke of Marlborough did not necessarily mean that he was especially fond of other dukes and peers. David Cannadine’s claim that Churchill was “closely related to the London-derries, the Airlies, and half the aristocracy of Britain” is a great exaggeration and most of those aristocratic connections were of little political significance to Churchill (Cannadine 1990: 608). Even when Winston was a young Tory, he showed no partiality for peers as politicians and thought that inherited income should be taxed more heavily than earned income.2

  • 3 W. S. Churchill to Hugh Cecil, 2 June 1904 (Churchill, R. 1969, vol. 2 part 1: 396).

9Winston’s political radicalism became publicly evident when he joined the Liberals in 1904. His change of party was a social, as well as a political, rupture as he told Lord Hugh Cecil: “I could not help thinking last night what a wrench it is for me to break with all that glittering hierarchy and how carefully one must organise one’s system of thought to be utterly independent of it.”3 Churchill had the courage of his convictions and he immediately attacked the House of Lords for being “the merest utensil of the Carlton Club” (The Times, 22 Oct. 1904). But his change of party did not cut him off from all his aristocratic connections. His election as a Liberal Member of Parliament for Manchester owed much to the help he received from two influential Liberal uncles: Lord Tweedmouth and Lord Wimborne. When Winston stayed with Lord Wimborne, he tactfully adopted a conciliatory tone when speaking about the Lords. But when the House of Lords attacked his own Liberal legislation he condemned “the plain absurdities in the composition of our hereditary Chamber, where a man acquires legislative functions simply through his virtue in being born” (The Times, 5 Feb. 1907).

10Churchill disliked the dominance of the Lords by the Landed Interest and wished to encourage the break-up of great estates, but he was not biased against agricultural landowners. In 1909 he advised Lloyd George to give landowners the option of paying Death Duties in land since this would reduce the inequitable tax burden on realty and have other benefits:

  • 4 W. S. Churchill to Lloyd George, 13 Aug. 1909 (Churchill, R. 1969, vol. 2 part 2: 904).

“The more I think about it the more it appeals to my sense of justice and to my notions of policy. It may be in the public interest and certainly it is in the public mood, that great estates should be broken up; but it cannot be in anybody’s interest that they should be merely encumbered. The reduction, paring off, or division of large landed properties may easily be attended with an increase of population and prosperity in the district affected.”4

11He thought that such a transfer would also provide land for small holdings, village gardens and public purposes generally. A month later, Churchill visited the German Rhineland and wrote home:

  • 5 W. S. Churchill to C. S. Churchill, 14 Sept. 1909 (Churchill, R. 1969, vol. 2 part 2: 909).

“The country is like a garden. For a hundred miles the whole countryside was covered with small patches of high cultivation (...) I did not see a single park or country seat. Nothing but the simple planting of a strong population. The villages and small towns are all becoming the centres of manufacture [...] All this picture makes one feel what a dreadful blight and burden our poor people have to put up with-with the parks and palaces of country families almost touching one another and smothering the villages and the industry. “5

12But Churchill did not repeat these sentiments–which could easily have been applied to his cousin’s Blenheim estate–on the public platform in Britain.

13Churchill was not directly responsible for the land taxes in Lloyd George’s 1909 budget, but he was a member of the Liberal Cabinet which approved them. The Tories felt that Churchill, as the grandson of a duke, ought to have “known better” and he was accused of “betraying his class” for the sake of self-advancement (Bonham Carter 1965: 184). When Lord Curzon pointed out that Churchill had inherited his political position like most of the peers in the Lords, he did not deny it:

“Why, of course, I owe everything to my father. Hut what defence is all (his of a House of hereditary legislators? Because my father was member for Woodstock, I do not suggest that 1 should be permanently member for Woodstock, irrespective of what the people of Woodstock think of me.” (The Times, 18 Dec. 1909.)

14He went on to argue that true hereditary distinction would receive recognition under an elected system. Churchill rejected Curzon’s implication that hereditary aristocrats were more talented than commoners:

“Nearly all the great ideas and the energy by which all the great services by which mankind has been benefited have come from the people, the religions of the world have come from the poor, and most of all is that true of Christianity [...] which today rules the world and has contributed to civilization all those precious ideas which keep our modern life clean and healthy.” (The Times, 18 Dec. 1909.)

15Churchill asked what great picture had ever been painted by a duke and noted that Lord Byron’s poetry had not been approved by the House of Lords. He pointed out that most great scientists, inventors and generals had not been peers by birth. Churchill argued that the domination of government office by the peerage merely reflected the extent to which power had been engrossed by a “small, limited and unrepresentative class” (The Times, 18 Dec. 1909).

  • 6 Birmimgham, 10 Jan. 1910 (James 1974, vol. 2: 1454).

16Churchill claimed that the Liberals were only opposed to the peers in their role as hereditary legislators.6 He regarded the unreformed House of Lords as “absolutely foreign to the spirit of the age and to the whole movement of society” and wanted to replace it with a smaller body elected by local councils. (The Times, 27 July 1910; Pelling 1974: 141.) When the dukes tried to defend their hereditary privileges, Churchill compared them with ornamental goldfish who were caught on every hook they saw. When his friend, Violet Asquith, asked him how this tickling of goldfish had been received at Blenheim, he replied that although Sunny Marlborough did not like the Budget, he had kept his hair and his scales on (Bonham Carter 1965: 183). Sunny remained on good terms with Winston, despite the latter’s determination to end the permanent veto of the House of Lords over legislation passed by the House of Commons:

  • 7 W. S. Churchill to Asquith, 3 Jan. 1911 (Churchill, R. 1969, vol. 2 part 2: 1031).

“The veto must be restricted as an indispensable preliminary to any cooperation between parties on the reform of the Lords, Ireland, or any other subject. We ought to go straight ahead with the Parliament Bill and carry it to the Lords at the earliest date compatible with full discussion. We ought as early as possible to make it clear that we are not a bit afraid of creating 5 000 peers-if necessary [...] Such a creation would be in fact for the interest of the Liberal party and a disaster to the Conservative party [...] our representatives would be far more capable and determined politicians than the Tory nobles.”7

17The threat of a mass creation of Liberal peers prompted most Tory peers to acquiesce in the passage of the Parliament Bill, but Sunny Marlborough, was one of the Tory “ditchers” who opposed the Parliament Bill to the bitter end. The political gulf between Winston and Sunny was further widened, in 1912, when Churchill pledged his commitment to Irish Home Rule, whereas Marlborough hosted an enormous Unionist rally at Blenheim.

18In 1913 Clementine Churchill stayed–without Winston–at Blenheim, where she received a telegram from Lloyd George, who was currently engaged in his radical Land Campaign. When the Duke asked Clementine not to reply “to that horrible little man on Blenheim writing-paper,” she took umbrage and returned to London, where Winston dismissed the row as a storm in a teacup (Soames 1979: 96). Marlborough detested Lloyd George because he had attacked the extravagant life-style of dukes enriched by Yankee gold–an obvious reference to Marlborough’s marriage to Consuelo Vanderbilt.

19The advent of the First World War postponed domestic controversies and enabled Churchill to obtain a post at the War Office for Sunny Marlborough. But his hope of bringing Marlborough into the coalition government was overtaken by his own exit from the Cabinet in 1915. Ironically, Marlborough joined the wartime government of Lloyd George–whom he had previously detested-six months before Winston whose return to office was strongly resisted by Earl Derby and other Tory peers (Churchill, R. 1959: 279).

20In 1919 a legacy from a distant aristocratic relative enabled Churchill to acquire a permanent country home at Chartwell, in Kent. But in the interwar years he continued to visit Blenheim where he spent his time painting and researching the life of the first Duke of Marlborough. It was at Blenheim (and at another ducal home Eaton Hall) that Churchill met Frederick Lindemann, “the prof.,” who became his principal scientific adviser. Although Churchill returned to the Conservative party, in 1924, he was still distrusted by many Tories. He wanted further reform of the House of Lords and claimed that the French Revolution, by sweeping away the ancien regime of rank and class, had “cleared the path for the onward development of the human race” (Churchill, W. 1933). It was only Churchill’s uncompromising opposition to the National Government’s India Bill in the early 1930s, which gained him the support of some Tory “Diehard” peers including the Dukes of Marlborough and Westminster. However a large majority of Tory peers supported the government’s India policy.

21In My Early Life, published in 1930, Churchill painted a picture of the decline and fall of the British aristocracy. He quoted the comment of the former French ambassador, Paul Cambon, on the changes which he had witnessed in Britain between 1900 and 1920: “I have witnessed an English Revolution more profound and searching than the French Revolution itself. The governing class have been almost entirely deprived of political power and to a very large extent of their property and estates...” (Churchill, W. 1943: 105.) Cambon’s views had been coloured by the Liberal ascendancy before the war and the large land sales after it–neither of which had lasted into the 1920s. The Tory aristocracy played a role in the fall of the last Liberal prime minister, Lloyd George, whilst the land sales were prompted by inflated wartime prices.

22Churchill was well aware that the aristocracy was not exactly a spent force in the 1920s. But Churchill–like Evelyn Waugh in his later novel Brideshead Revisited (1945)–was much struck by the demolition or conversion into hotels, flats and museums of the grand aristocratic town houses of London. He contrasted their fate with the glittering parties which had been held in them, when he was a young man in the 1890s (Churchill, W. 1943: 104). Yet even in the late Victorian period, only a very small minority of the aristocracy had kept grand town houses–as Francis M. L. Thompson (this volume) has pointed out.

23Churchill reiterated the theme of aristocratic decline when his cousin Sunny died in 1934:

“During the forty-two years he was Duke of Marlborough the organism of English society underwent a complete revolution The three or four hundred families which had for three or four hundred years guided the fortunes of the nation from a small struggling community to the headship of a vast and still unconquered Empire lost their authority and control. They became merged peacefully, insensibly, without bloodshed or strife, in a much more powerful but less coherent form of national consciousness; and the class to which the late Duke belonged were not only almost entirely relieved of their political responsibilities, but they were to a very large extent stripped of their property and in many cases driven from their homes.” (The Times, 2 July 1934.)

24Churchill’s elegy hid the fact that the Duke of Marlborough had died still in possession of Blenheim and its 20,000 acre estate together with a large London house in Carlton House Terrace. The Duke had been weighed down by his responsibility to preserve and embellish Blenheim, but in that respect, he was in no different from any of his ducal predecessors. Even the first Duke of Marlborough had regarded Blenheim, in Churchill’s words, “as a monument, not as a dwelling.”

25Churchill’s opposition to the appeasement of Nazi Germany received little aristocratic support, least of all from his relative, Lord Londonderry. The diaries of Chips Channon, Lord Balcarres and Harold Nicolson reveal that Churchill remained an anathema to many Tory aristocrats until he became Premier in 1940.

26Cannadine’s assertion that Churchill, once in office, surrounded himself with aristocrats is a great exaggeration (Cannadine 1990: 608). Neither Eden (the younger son of a baronet) nor Sinclair (a Scottish baronet) owed their prominence to Churchill, who included them in his government for political, not social, reasons. Oliver Lyttelton was not included in Churchill’s Cabinet because he was a “quintessential patrician,” but because he was a businessman who could secure the supply of metals essential for the war effort. Churchill, as wartime Premier, showed less favour to aristocrats, than had his bourgeois predecessors Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain. Moreover he appointed two distinctly plebeian Labour leaders–Herbert Morrison and Ernest Bevin–to key positions in his coalition Cabinet.

27Cannadine has pointed out that Churchill’s Assistant Private Secretary, John Colville, was the grandson of Lord Crewe, who had sat with Churchill in the Liberal Cabinet before 1915. But this connection does not explain why Colville served Churchill, for in 1940, Lord Crewe thought it most important that Churchill should not replace Chamberlain as Premier (Colville 1986: 40). Colville served Churchill simply because he had previously done the same job for Neville Chamberlain.

  • 8 Diary entry for 30 Oct. 1940 (Colville 1980: 278).
  • 9 See Hitler’s speech of 10 Dec. 1940.

28Churchill, as Prime Minister, was preoccupied, not with preserving the old social order, but with defeating Nazi Germany. After the Battle of Britain, he noted that most of the pilots came from elementary schools and the lower middle class and noted that none of the aristocracy chose the RAF. He then waxed eloquent on the disappearance of the aristocracy from the stage and their replacement by the excellent sons of the lower middle classes. He noted the difference between France–where the aristocracy had been separated from the people by a gulf of blood–and Britain where the aristocracy was sinking noiselessly and unresisting into the background.8 In Germany, however, Hitler depicted the war as a struggle between populist national socialism and elitist capitalism. Hitler contrasted his humble origins with those of the aristocratic rulers of Britain.9 Churchill responded in a speech at his old school, Harrow:

  • 10 Speech of 18 Dec. 1940 (Churchill, W. 1942: 17).

“Hitler [...] declared that the fight was between those who have been through the Adolf Hitler schools and those who have been at Eton. Hitler has forgotten Harrow, and he has also overlooked the vast majority of the youth of this country who have never had the advantage of attending such schools, but who have by their skills and prowess won the admiration of the whole world.
When this war is won, as it surely will be, it must be one of our aims to work to establish a state of society where the advantages and privileges which hitherto have been enjoyed only by the few shall be far more widely shared by the many, and by the youth of the nation as a whole.”10

29Churchill’s egalitarian vision was idealistic and expedient, but not insincere. He established a Committee on Health Insurance which led to the 1942 Beveridge Report–the basis of the welfare state–and his government passed the 1944 Butler Education Act which provided free secondary education for all.

  • 11 Speech of 11 Nov. 1947 (Churchill, W. 1950: 202).
  • 12 Diary 22 Feb. 1952 (Wilson, Lord Moran 1966: 376). See also the entries for 13 March 1952 and 18 F (...)

30The progressive character of Churchill’s domestic policy was obscured in 1945 by the end of the wartime coalition and Labour’s landslide victory at the general election. But Churchill’s outlook as the leader of the opposition was not always Conservative. In 1947 he opposed the Labour government’s Parliament Bill because it retained the hereditary principle in the Lords instead of introducing fundamental reform.11 Consequently it was hardly surprising that two patricians–Lord Salisbury and Oliver Stanley–wanted Churchill to stand down as party leader. Churchill’s distaste for the Lords was equally evident after his return to power in 1951. Lord Salisbury noted that Churchill regarded the Lords “as a rather disreputable collection of old gentlemen.”12 Churchill–unlike Asquith, Lloyd George, Baldwin, Attlee, and Eden–refused a peerage on his retirement in 1955. In 1961 he supported Anthony Wedgwood Benn when he tried, unsuccessfully, to renounce his peerage and retain his seat in the Commons (Churchill, W. 1961).

31In old age, Churchill displayed little nostalgia for the good old aristocratic days and his enthusiasm for Churchill College, Cambridge, reflected his belief that technology and scientific education would be the key to national success in the future.

32A careful scrutiny of Churchill’s career illustrates the problems involved in categorizing the actions of an individual solely by reference to social class. Churchill’s idiosyncratic personality and background included both aristocratic and democratic elements which cannot be easily disentangled. His self-confidence, his appetite for adventure and fame, his fascination with politics and war, his sense of family and destiny, can all be seen as typically aristocratic traits. His aristocratic family connections also assisted his career in numerous ways. But the democratic aspects of Churchill’s career must also not be overlooked. He rose to public prominence largely through his own efforts and obtained his income from writing and government office, rather than from inherited wealth. As a young man he represented working class constituencies and adopted radical domestic policies. His twenty year allegiance to the Liberal party constituted a break with the great majority of the aristocracy. Even after his return to the Conservative party he remained a radical Liberal in his attitude to the House of Lords. He was promoted to the Cabinet by middle class men–Asquith, Lloyd George, Baldwin and Chamberlain–and in his own ministries he showed no special favour to the aristocracy.

33Churchill had a strong sense of consanguinity and was proud of his family’s history, but his extended family–especially on the male Churchill side–had little direct influence on his political career. Although Churchill was fond of Blenheim, he only made one public speech there, in 1947, and he never took his political cue from the dukes of Marlborough. The dominant influence on Winston’s career was not Blenheim, but the example of his father, Lord Randolph. He was an aristocrat, who became the alleged champion of “Tory democracy and fell out with the Tory leadership. Randolph’s renegade career helps to account for Winston’s lengthy defection to Liberalism and his markedly independent approach to party politics” (Quinault 1979).

34Churchill was less of an aristocrat and a dynast than David Cannadine has claimed. Churchill did not regard himself as a member of an aristocracy destined to rule, but as a man who had adapted himself to the new democratic ethos of an age when “the aristocracy, who had guided for centuries the advance of Britain, was merged in the rising mass of the nation” (Churchill, W. 1962: VIII). He believed in his own destiny, but he fulfilled it largely by his own efforts and abilities. He was an aristocrat in the original Greek sense of the word: one most fitted to rule.



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1 Rosebery to W. S. Churchill, 10 Nov. 1901 (Churchill, R. 1969, vol. 2 part 1: 96).

2 W. S. Churchill to Lady R. Churchill, 4 Nov. 1896; 6 April, 1897 (Churchill, R. 1967, vol. 1 part 2: 698, 751).

3 W. S. Churchill to Hugh Cecil, 2 June 1904 (Churchill, R. 1969, vol. 2 part 1: 396).

4 W. S. Churchill to Lloyd George, 13 Aug. 1909 (Churchill, R. 1969, vol. 2 part 2: 904).

5 W. S. Churchill to C. S. Churchill, 14 Sept. 1909 (Churchill, R. 1969, vol. 2 part 2: 909).

6 Birmimgham, 10 Jan. 1910 (James 1974, vol. 2: 1454).

7 W. S. Churchill to Asquith, 3 Jan. 1911 (Churchill, R. 1969, vol. 2 part 2: 1031).

8 Diary entry for 30 Oct. 1940 (Colville 1980: 278).

9 See Hitler’s speech of 10 Dec. 1940.

10 Speech of 18 Dec. 1940 (Churchill, W. 1942: 17).

11 Speech of 11 Nov. 1947 (Churchill, W. 1950: 202).

12 Diary 22 Feb. 1952 (Wilson, Lord Moran 1966: 376). See also the entries for 13 March 1952 and 18 Feb. 1953.


Institute of Historical Research, University of London

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